You Are Now Free to Sketch

27 Jun, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

No-cost version of SketchUp has no obvious impact on professional market

On May 19, Aidan Chopra, the education program manager for Google SketchUp, reported in the SketchUpdate blog that, "For the first time in months, the waters are smooth, the sky is clear. ..." Chopra's forecast suggests that, with the launch of Google SketchUp (free), SketchUp Pro ($495) and 3D Warehouse squarely behind them, the team is enjoying a lull. But it's quite the opposite on the forum, now abuzz with questions from "newbies" discovering the software for the first time. A quick glance reveals a slew of accolades and technical questions: "Like most of you, I recently discovered SketchUp and ever since have been feverishly sketching things," wrote one; "How do [you] build stuff inside the house or even go inside the house?" asked another.

But if you dig deeper, you might also find isolated posts from users unclear about the distinction between personal use and commercial use. Someone asked, "I would like to show clients SketchUp files that I create in SketchUp Pro. Is it possible for them to view them with the free version?" to which another replied, "Not only can they view them, but they can change them as well."

Someone else wrote, "We would like to make SUF [SketchUp Free] available for our online customers to do layouts of their home offices," prompting a support technician to respond, "You need a license of SketchUp Professional to work in a for-profit environment. ..." (Similar issues might also arise among users of Google Earth, a popular terrain-exploration product now available free for personal and recreational use.)

So we contacted a few SketchUp users and Brad Schell, cofounder of @Last Software and the creator of SketchUp, to better understand the impact of free SketchUp on professional workflows.

Free vs. Pro; Personal vs. Commercial
A senior architectural technician who prefers to be identified by his screen name, Jumbo, came to the free SketchUp forum to find out how he could use SketchUp to modify a floor plan imported from AutoCAD. He said his multidisciplinary office is made up of architects, architectural technicians, mechanical and electrical engineers, quantity surveyors, and more. They used primarily AutoCAD LT and Architectural Desktop, supplemented with Revit. He had been using the free version as a learning tool. "More time to learn at home than in the office," he said. At press time, he said his office was evaluating SketchUp Pro for possible purchase.

Schell, now Google's product management director for SketchUp, said he couldn't reveal statistics of users converting from the free version to the Pro version because of company policies. However, he said, "We're very happy with what we've been seeing." He's not overly concerned with people using the free version to do commercial design work for profit. He's banking on two important factors to discourage such practices: the affordable pricing of the Pro version and the slew of advanced features available only for Pro users. For instance, only Pro users have access to printing and exporting raster images in high resolution; support for DWG, DXF, 3DS, OBJ, XSI, VRML and FBX formats; exporting animations and walkthroughs; organic modeling functions; tools for film and stage work; and more.

3D for Everyone, Every Purpose
Schell's judgment is not unfounded. Despite questionable use of the free version suggested by a few forum posts, most users we contacted acknowledge the value of the Pro version. John Donkin, a Canadian architect with 16 years' tenure, managed to convince a judge to rule in his favor in a municipal planning permission hearing by using a drawing done in SketchUp Pro. In a SketchUp case study, he recounted the incident: "The judge never got past the SketchUp drawing of what we were proposing. He compared it to two examples of what the municipality wanted (not pretty). He then stopped the hearing -- unheard of -- and decided the case in our favor."

Though he's not using the free version of SketchUp, Donkin predicted it would "become the Microsoft Word of modeling -- an easy way of showing someone a thing or an idea, [leading to] better data, better communication, better judgments. With a good, easy model, it's possible for people to see the building being judged and make better choices in architecture and planning."

Gary Smith from Green Mountain GeoGraphics, an ESRI geospatial software reseller, said, "I suspect that [free] SketchUp will have a significant effect on the general population, much in the same way Google Earth has exposed many new people to spatial analysis." He pointed out, "Users of the free version do not have access to the many free plugins that expand the interaction of SketchUp to many other software packages. The free version only saves to the native SKP format or the Google Earth KMZ format."

Smith recently made a presentation to the public to simulate a proposed power line, using SketchUp objects inside ESRI's ArcGIS/ArcScene -- something he couldn't have done with free versions of SketchUp and Google Earth, he pointed out. (For more, read the Burlington Free Press coverage.)

Google's Schell isn't sure if there's even a way to properly distinguish a SketchUp file created in the free version from the one created in the Pro version, but that doesn't perturb him either. "We want to create a large community of 3D users that are sharing their content in the 3D Warehouse," a searchable repository of 3D objects. Ultimately, we want everyone to populate the 3D virtual world in Google Earth," he said.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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